Director: Elizabeth Sankey
Writer: Elizabeth Sankey
Starring: Jessica Barden, Cameron Cook, Anne T. Donahue
Assisted by critics, actors and other directors, filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey analyses the very familiar cinematic genre of the romantic comedy.
Film is one of my biggest passions, and I will gladly watch any type of film, but I am quite happy to also admit that I am most reluctant to watch romantic comedies. I know that I am not alone in this, and the fact is that this is one of the most maligned film genres there is, but yet these films keep on coming and often make money. So as much as most of us cynical and snobbish film fans and critics may be eager to absolutely tear apart the latest romantic comedy that comes along, there must be a very good reason why they indeed keep relentlessly coming along.
Romantic Comedy is a documentary whose entire visuals consist of clips from very familiar (and occasionally not so familiar) films of the genre accompanied by talking head comments and analysis. Now, there is certainly no denying Elizabeth Sankey’s passion for the subject matter, and knowledge of film as a whole, but as engaging and interesting the views and arguments that are stated by the film’s contributors are, they tend to produce a documentary that is just about forgettable as the very films that it analyses.
Romantic Comedy very much feels like a visual version of an academic essay in that we are one by one provided with the various arguments along with supporting evidence, a slight counter argument and then a conclusion. However, like all arguments and theories, it is tainted by the author’s individual theory, and so when it discusses such a subjective medium like film then it is likely to face stark disagreement, and though I would certainly regard Romantic Comedy as watchable enough and recommend anyone that has a passion for cinema should watch it, I not only feel that (very much like the vacuous nature of the very films of the genre discussed) it is a film that produces nothing particularly memorable, and also in its often one-sided arguments fail to see a much bigger and broader bigger. However, it is certainly a good place to start a discussion, and if watched by a group of passionate film fans may certainly not only provoke debate, but a full-on argument!
Though Sankey gives her opinions and talks openly and passionately about how romantic comedy films influenced her growing up, the film contains a number of contributors (of both genders) that certainly provides an element of balance, but ultimately each person tarnishes all viewers with the same brush. The contributors often discuss how what they watched in their adolescent years affected their expectations of life – well, quite frankly a lot of people are not that naïve.
The different ‘chapters’ of the film that dissect different aspects of the romantic comedies certainly provide a well-researched and interesting insight into the familiar tropes, traits and narrative arcs of the genre. However, they are often manipulated to fit a particular argument. For example, many scenes from various films are shown on their own to make some kind of point, but (for those of us that have seen the entire film that they are from) when taken within the context of the actual overall film that they are in these individual scenes actually have a completely different meaning that does not quite fit with the arguments made by Romantic Comedy.
There are certainly some assuming and interesting arguments put forward in Romantic Comedy, especially that the stories in some romantic comedies could easily be the stories for horror films if they were depicted in a slightly different light, as the actions of the characters could easily be described as psychopathic – While you were Sleeping being the main example.
Sankey looks at films of the genre over the last 100 years, and this provides an interesting (if slightly generalised) history lesson, but the main focus of the film is the romantic comedies of the 90s. This is fair enough as it is when she grew up watching films, but she does assume in an overly casual and slightly narrow-minded way that all other women grew up thinking the same way she did. This also proves to be a slight contradiction of the fact she criticises mainstream romantic comedies for being too white and middle class.
All academic essays should provide balance, and Sankey deserves credit for pointing out her own errors; early on in the film she states that most (if not all) romantic comedies focus on white and heterosexual relationships, with all characters from other ethnicities and sexualities reduced to minor and highly stereotypical characters. However, later on in the film she points out that these films do actually exist, but she never saw them, and these films just have to be found. Of course, the fact that they are not ‘mainstream’ films is another and very complex argument for another time. The fact is that unless you are one of the lucky few that is a professional film critic that is paid to watch all films, you are likely to miss out on some great films of all genres.
In the latter stages of Romantic Comedy Sankey looks at more recent films and argues that these are a new kind of ‘romantic comedy’. Unfortunately, this is where I would argue that her theories and arguments completely fall apart and demonstrate a very narrow minded and naïve theory that shows quite a bit of disrespect for cinema audiences. Sankey makes the valid point that romantic comedies tend to feature middle class characters, but then completely fails to grasp what I consider the blatantly obvious reason for that. Sankey focusses on the British film God’s Own Country as an example of a film that features working class characters but with a story influenced by the romantic comedy genre. For me this is an extremely flawed argument, as though God’s Own Country is an excellent film, the working class setting of the film (a rundown Yorkshire farm that is on the verge of bankruptcy) means that the film’s setting is a defining character in its own right, and though the narrative may share a few tropes with that of a romantic comedy, the film is very much a gritty drama that happens to have an element of romance – albeit a very unconventional one.
I would personally argue that if a film features characters that are struggling financially then this becomes a defining subplot in its own right, and hence detracts from the romantic comedy element. A film that tackles such important issues deserves its place, but in my view people watch these genre pieces for pure escapism, and so do not want to be reminded of some of life’s depressing realities. So, the only way to have a film that does not include such potentially depressing and distracting subjects is to give us seemingly comfortable middle class characters so that the narrative can primarily focus on the ‘romantic’ and ‘comedy’ element of the narrative. Real life can be pretty depressing at times, and so those people from working class backgrounds (of which I am one) do not then want to watch a film that reminds them of their daily misery, they just want escapism (hence why celebrity magazines continue to sell so well), and so mainstream romantic comedies (though certainly not my personal choice) provide this entertaining escapism – just like action blockbusters do, but people do not then set their life goals around what happens in the latest Dwayne Johnson film! This does not necessarily mean people will instantly think that Richard Gere will come and save them or that Julia Roberts will walk into their bookshop and fall in love with them, but they just want to escape from the misery of real life for a couple of hours. Most people are also very much aware of the stereotypical, simplistic and quite narrow-minded characters and stories that are often presented in romantic comedies are not a reflection of reality. Romantic comedies are not the only mainstream genre that falls into this trap. These films that provide this element of predictable escapism, though certainly not my particular cup of tea, tend to make money. If they make money, they must be popular and so the industry will keep on churning them out. For me this is one of the key aspects of film and all of the arts, but yet appears to not even be something that Sankey considers.
Another flaw in the arguments presented by Romantic Comedy is this apparent argument that certain narrative arcs and tropes were created by the romantic comedy genre. I am sure that Elizabeth Sankey does not think this to be the case, but the film makes it seem like certain narrative tropes and characters arcs were exclusively created by the romantic comedy genre. I appreciate that the film’s main arguments centre around the genre that it is named after, but there is a borderline ignorance that certain tropes are characteristic of all mainstream genres of cinema and are indeed even more basic than that in that they go all the way back to the very fundamentals of storytelling in Aristotle’s Poetics. It is also a shame that there is no mention of the films that effectively spoof the genre, such as 2014’s criminally underseen They Came Together.
There is no denying that Romantic Comedy contains knowledgeable and passionate arguments and theories, but they are extremely narrow minded and flawed. There is certainly nothing on offer hear that will last long in the memory, nor change anyone’s opinion of the genre; we were all already very much aware of the genre’s flaws, but that is one of the main reasons why people either love or hate romantic comedies. However, the fact that I have ended up writing such a long review does prove that the film has done something.
A documentary made with an obvious passion for its subject matter and knowledge of the films it analyses. However, As watchable as Romantic Comedy is due to the passionate nature of the arguments presented and some interesting facts, they are often flawed, narrow minded and generalistic, which ultimately a provides a film that is as forgettable as the films that it analyses. If you want to start a healthy debate with a group of film buffs, this is a good place to start though.
At time of writing Romantic Comedy is available to stream on MUBI